Apparently, it’s terribly difficult for a global empire to make decent money these days. Instead of taking creative risks and trying new properties on for size, it’s much better business to simply yank an old, beloved classic out of the archive. All you need to do then is dust it off, polish it up, add some glitter, and throw it out to the masses. They’ll gobble it up like they were starving for that glitz and glamour. Fortunately, the end result is surprisingly enjoyable and unsurprisingly problematic.
Look, everyone knows the basic plot: orphaned girl is abused and taken advantage of by her step-family. One day, she manages to break free of her bonds for just one night thanks to the help of her fairy godmother. She attends a ball and falls for the prince. She has to leave the ball for magical reasons and loses a shoe along the way. Then, the prince uses that shoe to track her down. They meet again, marry, and live happily ever after.
Cinderella follows the same plot with a few minor alterations. The additions are much appreciated as it’s a good starting point to really understand the characters involved. We see young Ella’s (Eloise Webb) idyllic childhood with her mother (Hayley Atwell) and father (Ben Chaplin). Then, her mother suffers from Disney Mother Syndrome and dies after imparting some words of wisdom to our impressionable heroine.
Years pass and Ella’s father decides that, perhaps, it’s time he remarried. Ella (Lily James) encourages him because he deserves another chance at happiness. That’s what brings Lady Tremaine (Cate Blanchett) and her two daughters, Anastasia (Holliday Grainger) and Drisella (Sophie McSheara), into their lives. That relationship is short-lived as Ella’s father goes off and succumbs to Disney Father Syndrome, leaving his daughter behind with her new family.
You know the rest from there.
Overall, I liked the movie. It was sweet, charming, and gorgeous. The performances of the actors were remarkable as well. It may have been the mood I was in while seeing it, but the movie did bring me to tears more than once. I have to give them credit for adding that layer of emotion to it. They should also be credited with expanding the role of Lady Tremaine by giving her a little plot on which to chew. She and the Grand Duke (Stellan Skarsgård) plot together for spoiler-ish reasons.
When the movie wasn’t tugging at your heart strings for one reason or another, they added the occasional moment of levity. There was an amusing bit with a portrait painter played by Rob Bryden and, of course, the Fairy Godmother’s (Helena Bonham Carter) appearance to send Ella on her way. I am utterly grateful for the way Helena Bonham Carter approached the role. She had just the right amount of zany to not throw everything completely off. Unlike some actors, she’s learned that a little can go along way. Thank goodness.
During the showing I saw last night with my parents, there were four little girls in attendance. As I was settling in at home post-movie, I started to think about what sort of lessons those girls might have learned from it. That’s when I started seeing the cracks in the film’s façade. While it’s beautiful and sweet, there’s just something underneath it all that doesn’t sit right. Perhaps it’s because it’s 2015 and I expected better. I’ll get into that in the final thoughts.
So, yes, I liked the movie. The movie has issues that I’m going to address in just a little bit here. It was pretty and sparkly. Cinderella’s ballgown was beyond beautiful. All of the actors did fantastic work with what they were given. It was also nice to see Richard Madden, this film’s Prince Charming aka Kit, survive a wedding. That said, I was still half-expecting for “The Rains of Castamere” to start playing before the credits rolled. I just expected more from a 21st century princess and find myself disappointed that we’re just not there yet.
Once upon a time, I was a little girl who grew up on a steady diet of Disney. In my heart, I’m still that little girl who loves to curl up and watch my favorite animated flicks over and over again. I mention all of this to demonstrate the deep and abiding love I have for Disney despite the occasional (frequent) problematic elements in the things they produce.
In this section, there will be spoilers. Reader beware.
Let’s start at the beginning, shall we? When death comes for Agent Carter, she makes Ella promise to have courage and be kind. The girl takes that message to heart and carries it as her standard for all of the years to come. I’m not against that motto. I think it’s a good way to deal with the world. I’m just against the way the film interprets that core tenet of their heroine’s philosophy.
In the following sequence where we see how a grown Ella and her father are getting on, it’s pretty clear that her father has never really recovered from his wife’s death. The idea that he might deserve a second chance at happiness actually brings him to incredulous tears. Good, kind Ella encourages him to pursue that chance because why wouldn’t she? She wants her father to be happy.
It is obviously clear from the start that Lady Tremaine and Ella’s father are ill-suited for each other. He’s a quiet, country merchant homebody while she’s obviously used to a more active and cosmopolitan lifestyle. I honestly think they should have decided to sit down and have an honest discussion with each other prior to their nuptials about what sort of lives they each wanted to live. They might not have married after all and there may not have been a story, but it’s something everyone should do before deciding to tie themselves to another person.
Instead of dealing with the difficulties arising in his home life, Ella’s father decides to throw himself into his work. It’s not a healthy attitude to take. Then again, he’s not in a healthy mind frame in any case. He hasn’t been since his wife’s death. When he goes off on his final voyage, he reiterates the idea that Ella should be kind to her step-family no matter how occasionally difficult they might be.
The transition from member of the household to member of the staff is a gradual one for our heroine. She takes it all in stride because she’s just being kind to her new family. Her step-sisters aren’t dealing well with sharing a smaller bedroom? Sure, they can have Ella’s larger room. Lady Tremaine suggests that Ella should relocate to the attic since the rest of the house is to be renovated? That’s no problem at all. Let’s make lemons out of that lemonade! The staff has to be dismissed but the household still has to be maintained? Ella will happily take care of her beloved home. She doesn’t mind at all.
Her step-family treats her terribly, of course. They run her ragged and emotionally abuse her. Instead of somehow asserting herself or anything, Ella simply takes it with a watery smile. Her parents told her that she should have courage and be kind. She can make it through anything as long as she believes in that.
I don’t think Ella’s parents ever wanted their beloved daughter to turn herself into a doormat in the name of kindness. No one wants that for their child. If they had known their their well-meaning lessons would result in their daughter’s tears and unhappiness, perhaps they would have added some caveats. For example, “If your step-mother tells you to call her ‘Madam,’ you can tell her to go fuck herself. This isn’t a brothel and you’re her family, not her servant.”
We are supposed to cheer on Ella’s martyrdom. We’re supposed to root for her as she turns the other cheek. She’s turning her tragedy into something beautiful. The way she holds her head high in the face of some bruising emotional blows is supposed to inspire us.
It makes me feel as though Disney has taken a giant step backward when it comes to having leads that girls can actually aspire to be. I would never want a daughter of mine to think that taking abuse and not standing up for herself is showing kindness and courage. That is not a lesson any child should learn ever.
On top of that, let’s talk about that beautiful ballgown. It’s a gorgeous feat of costume engineering that required its wearer to consume a liquid diet while she was wearing it. She was corseted and cinched in. While the effect was lovely, it was also a little off-putting. I was constantly wondering if she was going to keel over from an inability to breathe. Perhaps I was over-thinking it, but would it have been so difficult to make a gown that was both beautiful and a little more comfortable.
Okay, let’s keep going. Let’s talk Lady Tremaine. I loved how Cate Blanchett was a candy-coated evil. She’s that sort of villain who will be cruel with a smile. This movie gives her a back story about marrying for love and that ending poorly. There’s the concern that she and her daughters will remain penniless if she doesn’t proactively work toward their having a better future.
As a couple of reviews have said, they could have done some interesting things with this plot line. They could have used it as a commentary about the limited choices that women have in that sort of historical setting. Instead, it became the usual fortune-hunting trope. I suppose adding an extra layer of complexity to the villain is not necessarily something Disney was into.
Speaking of villains and complexity, there’s this whole sub-plot about the King (Derek Jacobi) and the Grand Duke insisting that the prince marry a princess for the good of the kingdom. Outside of them expressing their concerns for the kingdom’s future, there’s no real urgency or looming threat of war to make their insistence plausible outside of the usual “you’re a prince and this is how things work.”
Furthermore, the Grand Duke apparently makes a deal for the prince to marry a specific princess. There’s no explanation as to why he’s thrown his lot in with that specific royal family and why he feels it necessary to be duplicitous in order to achieve that particular goal. Was he being blackmailed? Was he being promised power and riches? Who knows? I’d have liked a little more out of that particular plot thread.
Now, finally, let’s speak of other kinds of representation. One of the criticisms that has been lobbed at Disney in the past has been the lack of non-white people in their films. It’s not just Disney who has been criticized in that regard. All of Hollywood is really terrible at that. At least in Cinderella, one of the characters with speaking roles is not white. The captain of the guard is played by the ever-awesome Nonso Anozie. There are even not-white faces in the crowds. They’re not even all servants!
That’s progress, right?
Well, yes and no. Yes, it’s awesome that things aren’t as monochromatic. That’s good. It’s not as good when only one of the main characters happens to be black. Why did everyone else have to be white? Don’t tell me it’s because of some sort of adherence to a semblance of historical accuracy. We both know that’s a lie. Besides, the movie takes place in a fictional country and there’s a fairy godmother who turns a pumpkin into a carriage. Why couldn’t either of our heroes be played by people of a different race? It worked in that awesome made-for-TV adaptation of the musical Cinderella with Brandy Norwood and Whitney Houston.
It’s 2015, people. We’re well into the 21st century. We deserve better from our entertainment than what we’re being fed. We deserve women who know their worth and aren’t afraid to stand up for themselves. We deserve faces of different colors on our screen. We deserve to see different sorts of relationships represented. We deserve so much more. Give us that.